While scholars in fields such as anthropology, archaeology, art history and public history have long studied material culture, traditional historians have only recently deemed it a “respectable” primary source – or so says Beverly Lemire in her chapter “Draping the Body and Dressing the Home: The Material Culture of Textiles and Clothes in the Atlantic World, c. 1500-1800” in History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, edited by Karen Harvey. The rise in histories of production and consumption, economics in a transnational scope vis-à-vis colonialism and slavery, as well as women’s history (particularly, upper/middle-class white women) encouraged this historiographic shift of the last few decades (85).
While textual sources are most often read for their explicit descriptions of historical events, objects are interpreted for materials, formation and context – implicit clues about movement, time and place. Lemire references Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (91-92) and lauds the author for her work tracing the origins of various resources, the creation of products and their passing between said creators, buyers, owners and users (not always the same). But how can we juxtapose these macrohistories of material culture – those that illustrate broad cultural and economic patterns evinced in the objects we study – with microhistories of material culture – those that dig into how objects were experienced at the interpersonal level, absent the knowledge of how or where or why or when something came to be (knowledge that an individual user might not possess)?
For example, given a dress owned by an upper/middle-class white woman in the 1700s, we could describe how the materials used to create it were made possible by the labor of enslaved people or the land of a dispossessed indigenous group, perhaps even woven and sewn by the very same people, dyed using plants from the other side of the world, using methods originated by a colonized people, sold in bulk to one merchant, transported across land and sea to another and so on, until it was brought into the home of said woman. However, how many of these connections and processes would this woman be aware? Would she even be cognizant of them when donning her dress at a dinner or other soiree? What does her (willful) ignorance say about her and her context? Without knowledge of her complicity in these global power dynamics, in cultural and economic exploitation, what does the dress mean to her? Maybe it reminds her of her first dance and a particularly handsome suitor, the late father who brought it home for her and the unborn child she hopes to bequeath it to, and so on. The history of this dress is in the eye of the beholder.
Ulrichs elegantly zooms in and out of these macro- and microhistories, seamlessly synthesizing her study of material culture with the context afforded by other sources like correspondence and diary entries. The sentiments accompanying domestic items are relayed in the creators' own words – “This silk is the first I made assisted by my beloved Winship the summer before he died…” (380). Additionally, she speaks to the sociocultural implications of donning certain attire, acquiring or producing certain goods – the politics of conspicuous consumption that far pre-date the mid-century connotations of Cold War capitalism, but permeate all material culture. Even in Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects, edited by herself and Ivan Gaskell, Sara Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter, Ulrich’s section “A Field-Hockey Dress: Fit for a Knockabout Sport” hones in on a bow, meant to challenge the idea that “female athletes were mannish and even grotesque” (69). Such a small detail on an item of material cutlure may be read as evidence for a broad commentary on gender and body politics. As Joan Severa and Merrill Horswill put it in their article “Costume as Material Culture” –
“Costume is the most personal of artifacts; it forms a man’s closest environment, actually serving
as an extension of the body, and is an integral part of body language. Besides affording shelter
and protection, costume provides a façade” (51).
Scholars of material culture claim to examine a given society’s ideas and values (51-52). But do historians always use objects as a means of gleaning this anthropological insight into the past? Or do they seek more (seemingly concrete) information like patterns of economic exchange? Severa and Horswill implicitly define “history” as provenance – “frequently missing or unreliable for historic clothing … untraceable names, precise dates for the garments were unknown. Therefore the history needs to be deduced from the artifact itself” (54). In other words, all information is actually historical because everything we know exists in the past.